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Mental Health of Veterans

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:14 am on 11th March 2020.

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Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence) 11:14 am, 11th March 2020

It is a pleasure to speak under your leadership this morning, Mr Stringer.

I pay tribute to Jamie Stone for his interest and for the way he continually drives the debate. Clearly, I have a script that talks about all the stuff we are doing, but I want to answer some of the specific points that he has raised this morning. I am delighted that he shows such an interest in the subject. He will know that support for veterans was a driving force for me in coming to Parliament; I wanted to drive through change. I can honestly say to him that there a shift in strategy is under way in how we support armed forces veterans. For too long, colleagues in charities and in this House have asked the Government to step up and do more, and we are now starting to do that. I do not pretend for an instant that we have always got it right. That has led to some of the challenges that we face today, and I came into Government specifically to try to lead the change.

I want to challenge a couple of things that were said, and the first relates to the portrayal of veterans. There is no doubt that some of our people are extremely poorly because of what we have asked them to do over a number of years. I am acutely aware of that. The Prime Minister and I are acutely aware that the nation has a debt of gratitude to them that must be realised by more than words and ceremonies in Whitehall; it must be repaid by provision to look after them throughout life. It is important to me to challenge the portrayal of the problem as greater than it is. There is in the country undoubtedly a way of portraying veterans—exacerbated by the media and TV programmes—that suggests that military service or combat experience equal mental health problems. In reality, we all know that that is not so, and we cannot say that too much, because the problems that that view causes are significant. This week we are bringing in changes with respect to national insurance contributions, and that is important because although there are pretty good veterans programmes at big firms in cities, for people who can get access to those workplaces, sometimes when I have been to towns and cities someone from the CBI has stood up and said, “I can’t take the risk on a veteran.” They are worried about whether they will be off sick, and all the concomitant issues with service. We must be careful about the narrative that veterans are all broken. I would not advance this view if it were not true: the vast majority leave their service greatly enhanced by their time in the military. The reason I raise that is that is that if we do not get it right we will simply be unable to meet the challenge of those who are genuinely poorly and unwell because of what the nation asked them to do. I am committed to getting those people the help they deserve.